A False Start
The first step toward making the Shubenacadie Canal a reality came in 1796, when the provincial legislature ordered a survey to formally cost out construction. The survey was released a year later, estimating the total cost at just over £32,000 (Halifax rating, approximately CA$5.7 million in 2019).
In 1798, the legislature debated a bill to incorporate a canal company. However, it was defeated, and the plan was shelved.
Francis Hall’s Report
In 1824, the idea of a canal was revived when the legislature ordered a new feasibility study. This study was led by Francis Hall, an engineer who had previously worked on canals in Scotland.
Hall proposed a canal connecting Halifax Harbour with the lakes of Dartmouth and beyond, extending to Shubenacadie Grand Lake. From Grand Lake, the canal would follow the route of the existing Shubenacadie River, with portions of the river dredged or augmented with canal locks to make it navigable by larger boats. The canal would include 19 locks in total, including seven between Halifax Harbour and Dartmouth’s Lake Banook alone, and could accommodate steamships, sailing boats, and barges with a draft up to eight feet. He estimated the cost at £55,344 (Halifax rating, approximately CA$7.1 million in 2019).
Hall envisioned steam-powered tugboats with 12 to 14 horsepower pulling up to four trade boats along the waterway, with each boat carrying up to 30 imperial tons of cargo (30,481 kg or 67,200 lbs) – a staggering total of almost 122,000 kg (269,000 lbs)! He imagined these convoys would be able to make the trip from Halifax to the Bay of Fundy in about 15 hours. Compare this to modern semitrailer trucks, which use engines of over 500 horsepower to carry loads of only 49,500 kg (109,129 lbs), albeit at much faster speeds.
The Shubenac(c)adie Canal Company
With Hall’s detailed plans and costing, the project finally seemed viable. On June 1, 1826, the Shubenaccadie Canal Company (with two c’s) was incorporated. The spelling of the name would fluctuate between “Shubenaccadie” and “Shubenacadie” (with one c) for several years before eventually settling on the latter.
The new company needed several things to be successful. Chief among them were people to be in charge of the planning, building, and operation of the canal, wealthy investors to put money into the project to keep it going, and a large skilled labour force to do the back-breaking work.
Michael Wallace, a prominent Halifax politician and the future namesake of Port Wallace, was appointed as president of the company. Francis Hall was named chief engineer, and the committed canal supporter Charles Rufus Fairbanks became the company’s secretary. Samuel Cunard, the shipping magnate who would later found the renowned Cunard Line, served as one of the company’s vice-presidents and was also a significant investor.
Aside from government funding, the newly formed Shubenacadie Canal Company was financed largely by shares sold to the merchant community of Halifax. Notable backers or investors for the Shubenacadie Canal included famous brewmaster Alexander Keith, former privateer and Halifax businessman Enos Collins, and the aforementioned Samuel Cunard.
Work on the Shubenacadie Canal officially began on July 25, 1826, with a ceremonial sod-turning in what is now Shubie Park. The ceremony was attended by some of the most prominent political and business leaders in British North America at the time.
The construction of the canal required various different activities. Locks had to be built, channels had to be cut into the ground, the banks of the channels had to be shored up, and dams had to be erected along the route to help control water levels. Each section of the canal posed its own challenges depending on the landscape and natural water depth (if any) at each site.
This work naturally called for a large, skilled labour force. Many of these workers came from Ireland and Scotland and lived in camps along the canal route. One of these camps grew into the former Irishtown neighbourhood of Dartmouth, which used to be located near the present-day Irishtown Road off Ochterloney Street. The ruins of the stone dwellings of another camp can still be seen in Shubie Park today.
Some records survive of the individual workers who helped build the canal. Click here to read the names of the canal workers from Daniel Hourd’s Port Wallace crew who worked between July and August 1830.
Design and Building Methods Used
The Shubenacadie Canal was modelled after canals being built in England and Scotland at the time. The walls of the locks were built with cut granite stone, which was laid and sealed in cement. Sluice valves were placed into culverts at the bottom of the locks, allowing water to drain from the lock when the water level needed to be lowered. Waste-weir dams were also built adjacent to several locks in the interior section of the canal. These had slatted gates that were used to remove excess water from the system or to drain the canal for repairs and winter shutdown.
Unfortunately, these designs ended up causing significant problems for the Shubenacadie Canal Company. The granite locks, while extremely sturdy when used in more temperate climates like Britain, proved unable to withstand the freeze-thaw cycle of the harsh Nova Scotia winter. Several canal locks had to undergo major repairs each spring, even before they were finished. This was one of the first major financial setbacks for the canal.
Money In, Money Out
By 1828, two years into construction, the Shubenacadie Canal project was already significantly overbudget. That June, the first major work stoppage occurred on the canal when two of its general contractors, John Kidd and Daniel Hoard, were unable to pay their subcontractors on schedule. Although this issue was resolved relatively soon thereafter, it was far from the end of the canal’s money woes.
In 1829, Charles Rufus Fairbanks sailed to England in the hope of securing additional funding for the project. The Shubenacadie Canal Company also hired an agent residing in London as a liaison for investors. By 1830, Fairbanks had succeeded in getting substantial amounts of money from private investors. He also negotiated a large loan from the British government, although this loan was secured by a mortgage on all of the property and income of the canal.
Although Fairbanks was able to secure some additional funding, unforeseen costs were also piling up. Construction difficulties required sections of the canal to be rerouted, incurring additional expenses for planning and land acquisition. By 1830, Francis Hall began writing to the board of directors, complaining that he was not being paid his salary as chief engineer. Meanwhile, inspections had revealed that many of the completed canal locks had not been built to the proper dimensions and were too small for the intended shipping traffic to pass through, and others were simply built too poorly to be safely operated.
The Canal Funds Dry Up
Finally, in 1831, the money ran out completely. From that summer onward, the Shubenacadie Canal Company was unable to pay wages to any of its workers, resulting in widespread discontent and periodic work stoppages. Making matters worse, heavy rains that autumn wrecked several of the canal locks between Grand Lake and Lake Charles.
On November 19, 1831, the canal workers threw down their tools for the last time, with most of them not having seen any pay for at least four months. A group of disgruntled workers even set fire to one of the locks in protest. The relief of now-unemployed canal workers became a bigger political issue than the completion of the canal itself. Many eventually left the province to seek work elsewhere. Others were able to get jobs working on other stone buildings around Halifax and Dartmouth, such as Henry House on Barrington Street in Halifax.
At this point in time, the Shubenacadie Canal was far from operable. Although many of the locks had been substantially or completely finished, other key pieces of infrastructure had not even begun construction. The downtown Dartmouth section of the canal in particular had lagged behind the rest of the project; it only had four partially completed locks and no connection to the harbour.
Falling on Deaf Ears
Despite the permanent work stoppage, the Shubenacadie Canal Company continued to seek further investment. Its pleas were sometimes met with ridicule, with one letter to the editor of the Acadian Recorder in 1832 sardonically suggesting that the company would next be seeking money from “Paris, or the Moon, or the Dog-star”.
In 1832, under pressure from shareholders in Britain, the company applied to the British government to appoint royal engineers to inspect the canal project and report on its viability. The following year, the resulting report identified the Shubenacadie Canal as a boondoggle. Five of the 13 completed locks were not of the proper dimensions, and the masonry was so poor that most of it would have to be completely rebuilt. The report concluded by estimating the total cost for completion at a staggering £120,000 (Halifax rating, approximately CA$18.1 million in 2019). Even accounting for fluctuations in currency values in the intervening decade, this was well over double Francis Hall’s original estimate from 1825 for the initial construction of the canal.
Although the Shubenacadie Canal Company made various other funding pleas and commissioned new surveys throughout the 1830s, it failed to gain any traction. Charles Rufus Fairbanks died in 1841, and several years later, the British government foreclosed on its mortgage. The dream was dead for now.